For this Mystery Monday I want to tell you about a great American writer whose name you might not know: Elmore Leonard (1925–2013). As with Philip K. Dick, another great American writer, it’s quite possible you’ve seen a movie based on his work without realizing it. In fact, Elmore Leonard gives Stephen King a run for the money when it comes to works adapted to film.
Two of my very favorite films, Get Shorty (1995) and Jackie Brown (1997), are adaptations of Leonard’s novels. The former is the second film that restarted John Travolta’s career, and many believe the success of the film greatly depends on the source material (I quite agree).
If you like crime fiction, you definitely want to get into Elmore Leonard.
There’s a story about how the filmmakers originally intended to “Hollywoodize” the dialog of Leonard’s 1990 novel, Get Shorty. Travolta, flush with success from Pulp Fiction (1994), insisted they stick with the original language from the novel.
Because of that, the movie plays a lot like an Elmore Leonard book, and we get tasty dialog such as (when warned about confronting a more powerful person, Travolta’s character responds), “Don’t worry about it. I won’t say any more than I have to, if that.”
(In fact, he doesn’t say a single word. Just punches the guy (Dennis Farina) in the nose and gets his stolen jacket back.)
The rest, as they say, is history. Also lightning in a bottle. Leonard wrote a sequel, Be Cool (1999), this one about the Hollywood music industry (Get Shorty is about the Hollywood film industry). A film adaptation, Be Cool, starring Travolta and Uma Thurman, came out in 2005.
I think both films are worth seeing. Both have a great cast, and Be Cool has some wonderful musical cameos plus an on-point and memorable speech by Cedric the Entertainer (playing a music industry gangster) about the debt white culture owes black culture (nearly all of our music, and a lot more — to some extent the whole notion of “cool”).
The books, obviously, are definitely worth reading.
There are connected dots all over the place here.
Travolta’s career is revived when, alongside Uma Therman, he stars in Pulp Fiction (written and directed by Quentin Tarantino). The following year, Travolta does Get Shorty (along with Gene Hackman and Rene Russo).
Tarantino writes and directs Jackie Brown, which is based on the Elmore Leonard novel, Rum Punch (1992). It features Michael Keaton as Ray Nicolette, an FBI agent in charge of the case against Jackie Brown (Pam Grier).
As a testament to the quality of Leonard’s writing, Jackie Brown is the only adaptation Tarantino has ever made. All his other films are original material of his. (I think Jackie Brown is Tarantino’s best film, although it only wins over Pulp Fiction by a nose.)
In fact, Tarantino was a fan of Leonard since a young age, and Leonard saw a fellow traveler in Tarantino, whose films directly and intentionally channel Leonard’s style. One difference is that Tarantino’s films are considerably more violent that Leonard’s stories. It’s kind of Tarantino’s thing.
In 1998, Steven Soderbergh directs Out of Sight, with George Clooney as a career bank robber and Jennifer Lopez as a U.S. Marshal. It was produced by Barry Sonnenfeld (who directed Get Shorty) along with Stacey Sher, Michael Shamberg, and Danny DeVito (who all co-produced Get Shorty).
Despite none of those people being associated with Tarantino’s crew, Michael Keaton briefly reprises his FBI role, this time as Jennifer Lopez’s supposed love interest. (Clooney, the crook, obviously wins her heart.)
Lastly, in 2005, Be Cool comes out with Travolta and Thurman back together again. The cast includes Vince Vaughn, Harvey Keitel, Danny DeVito, and The Rock (as he was called then).
But only Shamberg and DeVito remain as co-producers, along with newcomers Michael Siegel and F. Gary Gray (who also directed).
The first two films are highly regarded just as films and also as faithful adaptations of Leonard.
The third is a lot of fun, which you’d expect with Soderbergh, Clooney, and Lopez (and Ving Rhames). In fact, many think it’s very under-rated and just as faithful. It’s a bit more lightweight is all.
The fourth has its good points, but is definitely in last place.
That said, as it turns out, these are all the four good ones.
In addition to these, there are many other movies from his works, quite a number of TV movies, and four TV series. He wrote some of the screenplays himself. As I said, he gives Stephen King a run for his money when it comes to adaptations.
King himself once called Leonard, “the great American writer.”
When it comes to seriously tasty interesting writing, Leonard may have more in common with science fiction author Philip K. Dick (who also has a surprising number of adaptations of his work). I’m a big fan of both.
(Or maybe that’s just my assessment. I was never that into Stephen King, although I’ve read most of his classics.)
A sad irony is that, with the exception of the four above, most Elmore Leonard film adaptations aren’t very good. They capture the noir and grit, but not the quirk or wry humor. Leonard was very disappointed by his experiences with Hollywood, and Get Shorty is in many ways about his experiences there.
Leonard’s writing can be seen to resemble, but transcend, that of Raymond Chandler (and Chandler was pretty damn good). It’s not as dark, but it’s far more textured, which may be what Hollywood missed (it often does).
When the market for cowboy stories rode off into the sunset, Leonard switched to crime fiction. Somehow Hollywood never quite figured out his style.
After that it was ignored until the success of Get Shorty revived interest in Leonard’s work. In 2004 there was a second version with Owen Wilson, Morgan Freeman, Gary Sinise, and Sara Foster (among other notable names). It didn’t do well, either.
Leonard referred to the first version of The Big Bounce as the “second worst movie ever made.” After he saw the second version he reportedly knew what the first one was.
I’ve seen the 2004 version. Wilson and Freeman are pretty watchable, and so is the Hawaiian locale (the novel is actually set in Michigan). It’s a bit of harmless fluff not at all on par with the four good ones.
I stumbled across a good 2014 article in The Atlantic, probably written as a commemoration of Leonard’s death in 2013.
It’s called The Elmore Leonard Paradox, and it gets more into the strange contrast between the quality of the stories versus the inability of Hollywood to set them to film. I also connects a few more dots between Tarantino and Leonard.
Pretty good read if you’re interested in more about Leonard.
If you’ve never seen Get Shorty, you have such a delightful treat in store — don’t put it off. I do recommend the sequel, Be Cool, with the caveat it doesn’t capture the lightning.
If you’ve never seen Jackie Brown, well, likewise. Another delicious treat. As in all three cases, the cast alone is worth the price of admission. The writing just takes it to the stratosphere. (I would suggest reading the book, Rum Punch, first.)
I mean, holy cow, we’re talking source material by Quentin Tarantino and Elmore Leonard (enacted by Pam Grier, Samuel Jackson, Robert Forster, Bridget Fonda, Micheal Keaton, and Robert De Niro).
But most importantly, if you like great writing, especially crime fiction, and you’ve never read Elmore Leonard, you have a whole world of wonderful waiting for you.
Just the thing for these troubled times.
Stay cool, my friends!